On the sidelines of the U.N.: Hope, cocktails and efforts to be heard

This year, many civil society groups are taking steps and making plans themselves to try to push progress forward on the Sustainable Development Goals

Climate activists march on Madison Avenue while protesting energy policy and the use of fossil fuels, in New York, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023
Climate activists march on Madison Avenue while protesting energy policy and the use of fossil fuels, in New York, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023.Bryan Woolston (AP)

Inside the U.N.’s gates, world leaders use the spotlight to talk — to each other and the entire planet. Outside, across New York City, civil society groups and large philanthropies take matters into their own hands at a swirl of cocktail parties, meetings and protests.

Nonprofit organizations send their senior leaders to the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly at significant expense to make sure their voices are heard in the right rooms. Activists come from around the world to try to influence the decisions of international politicians. Many staffers who keep NGOs running day-to-day gather to chart new paths forward.

“The week is an opportunity for a lot of people coming to town to get some good strategic work and collaboration done or ignited or advanced,” said Elizabeth Cousens, president and CEO of the UN Foundation.

A priority of this year’s assembly is progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, which countries agreed in 2015 to try to meet by 2030. Halfway there, the outlook is bleak on most measures. The fifth goal — to achieve gender equity — is only 15% on track, according to the UN’s own analysis.

Cousens, who was lead U.S. negotiator for the goals, said it was no secret the world was wildly off track, but that setting ambitious goals was the right thing to do.

“You wouldn’t want to set a goal that said, ‘Let’s end some of forms of violence and discrimination against some of the women some of the time,’” she said.

All this week behind the scenes, the largest donor countries for gender equality will be discussing their priorities, said Monica Aleman, international program director for the Ford Foundation. She’ll watch the positions those leaders take and where they direct their funding.

“I think it’s very, very important because we are living in a time where we are observing a backlash in the normative framework, particularly in the U.N., around the rights of women and around the overall framework of gender equality,” she said, speaking in the James Baldwin room at the foundation’s headquarters, a stone’s throw from the U.N.

Funders, researchers and activists ate salmon and sandwiches for lunch on the 11th floor of the foundation’s headquarters the Thursday before the week of the General Assembly during the Free Future 2023 conference on gender-based violence that one attendee said was valuable for bringing together a strategic group of leaders. It was one of some 40 events the Ford Foundation hosted connected to General Assembly week, flexing its power to convene.

The sidelines of the General Assembly first began drawing major crowds in 2014, when a U.N. Climate Summit was convened alongside the usual speeches by politicians.

Protesters also understand the value of proximity. On Sunday, tens of thousands of activists cut across midtown Manhattan, snarling traffic for hours, to show their support for urgent and transformative action to address the impacts of climate change.

“If you just look at the summer and the wildfires and the storms and the floods, it’s like the number of people who are suffering is so enormous,” said Keya Chatterjee, who helped organize a bus of protesters who came up from Washington on Sunday morning. “And it becomes the question of, how much human suffering do we put up with in the name of greed?”

Speaking next to a 6-foot tall model of planet Earth that would be carried through the streets, Chatterjee said she wants President Joe Biden to stop the development of new fossil fuel sources, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

None of the leaders of the United States, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom or France attended a climate summit on Wednesday convened by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. They had no new commitments to announce to curb the pollution of heat-trapping gases.

Another theme of conversations at small panels and at large conferences, including one hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that researchers and practitioners have many inexpensive solutions that could immediately improve health outcomes and increase prosperity and access to education.

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, said at its Goalkeepers conference Wednesday he was angry that richer countries have not refocused and committed to spending money on meeting the SDGs after putting up trillions of dollars to bolster their own economies in response to the pandemic.

“What we’re outlining today is not pie in the sky. It’s very concrete, implementable actions that are low cost. They save lives. They can be rolled out today, tomorrow, next week, next month,” Suzman said, about a series of interventions to decrease child and maternal mortality that the foundation highlighted in a recent report.

Similarly, leaders of the large NGO Opportunity International, which connects private financing to small farmers, said they were speaking on panels with political leaders and meeting with donors to make the case for funding their services, which reach some of the least connected people thanks to the new availability of cheap mobile phones, Internet access and other technologies.

“Those very basic things are what is making a massive difference,” said Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International, who said he remains hopeful that the world can meet the SDGs in his lifetime.

His organization hosted a breakfast panel Monday in a rented meeting room on private financing for affordable education, another major focus of their work. A staffer from a South Africa-based education organization, who walked through the rain to listen in, said it’s at sideline events like these where she learns about what’s happening on the ground in the education sector.

Zia Khan, senior vice president for innovation at The Rockefeller Foundation, which has hosted back-to-back events all week, thinks the culture of conferences, panels and planning meetings about the SDGs during General Assembly week should not be confused with working to achieve the goals.

To that end, along with the Brookings Institution, the foundation convenes working groups on each of the 17 goals to design a concrete project, for example, to bring a direct cash payment system that one country successfully implements to several others in the next year and a half.

The framework, he said, helps groups “to focus on a pretty specific action that might feel small given the SDGs but still has impact. And so we use this phrase, which is: big enough to matter, but small enough to get done.”

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